Archive for the 'Bird Behavior' Category

Nov 28 2013

Band Of Brothers

Two male wild turkeys chase a police car in Moorhead, MN (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Chances are these turkeys are brothers, working together to chase the police out of their territory.

Wild turkeys are very social birds whose flocks are often composed of siblings.  This habit starts young when they’re all poults together and continues as adults.

Each sex within the flock develops a pecking order.  Literally.  Who has the right to peck someone else?  The ladies figure out the hierarchy and tend to leave it at that without a lot of jostling.  The guys, on the other hand, are always stirring things up.  Which of them is most dominant?  They fight about it.  In this case they’re fighting a police car.

Turkeys are brothers in love and war.  Groups of male turkeys strutting and displaying together are usually brothers, collaborating to attract the opposite sex.  One of them is dominant and he’ll get to mate with the ladies.  His brothers display but they don’t become fathers.

But don’t feel sorry for the lesser guys. Soon enough they’ll fight about it and a different male may achieve dominance in the band of brothers.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons of two male wild turkeys chasing a police car in Moorhead, Minnesota on April 29, 2013. Click on the image to see the original.  Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 338 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

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Nov 14 2013

Positive Parroting

African Gray Parrot (photo courtesy Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC))

If you watched Parrot Confidential on PBS NATURE last night you know that people fall in love with parrots’ charm and beauty but often adopt them with almost no information on their needs.

Unfortunately there aren’t many ways to learn about parrots except by trial and error.  This can lead to huge frustration and the birds’ surrender to an uncertain future.

If you already own a parrot or are contemplating a purchase or rescue, where can you turn?

Parrot Confidential’s website provides a list of conservation, sanctuary and advocacy resources across the U.S.   Even better, if you live in Pittsburgh you can get a hands-on education at the National Aviary’s Positive Parroting classes.

Twice a year Dr. Pilar Fish (head avian veterinarian) and Cathy Schlott (manager of bird training) conduct three two-hour classes that provide practical resources and information to lower frustration and keep the bird united with the owner.

I spoke with Dr. Pilar Fish about the classes.  She’s a life-long parrot owner, former rescuer and parrot advocate.  In fact she became a bird veterinarian because of her love for parrots. She can tell you that owning a parrot is a totally absorbing hobby, a lifelong relationship and a lifestyle-changing commitment.  As she says, “I’ve been there. I want to be a resource.”

Most people don’t realize that parrots are advanced, complex animals.  They have the intelligence and problem-solving skills of toddlers (African Grays are like 6-year-olds!) but the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old.  Imagine a child in its “terrible twos” confined to a small space with a single toy and the same food day after day.  Of course he’ll have tantrums!

In class you’ll learn how to adjust for the bird’s natural behavior.  What do these birds do all day in the wild?  If you provide your parrot with his natural routine and toys to occupy his mind he’ll be much happier.  So will you.  In class you’ll get a “cookbook” of habitats, schedules and tips and you’ll make toys to occupy your parrot and enrich his life.

The second part of Positive Parroting is about problem solving.  Cathy Schlott teaches how to train your bird in a positive way, reward good behavior and deal with behavioral issues.  She gives live demonstrations using the Aviary’s own parrots, some of whom are former pets.

Fall classes have already begun.  The first class, The Healthy Happy Parrot, was held on October 26.  Still to come are:

  • Pet Bird Enrichment, this Saturday November 16, 2013, 10:00 am—12:00 pm. (enhance natural behaviors)
  • Training Your Pet Bird, Saturday December 7, 2013, 10:00 am—12:00 pm (problem solving)

Click on this link for information on Positive Parroting.  Education is good!

 

p.s.  If you haven’t seen Parrot Confidential yet, watch WQED’s rebroadcast at 5:00am tomorrow, Friday November 15.  The online broadcast is available at Parrot Confidential’s website.

 

(photo of African Gray Parrot courtesy Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

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Nov 07 2013

Parrot Confidential

Blue and Gold Macaw (photo Courtesy of Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

No one knows for sure how many parrots are kept as pets in the U.S. — maybe 10-40 million — but we’re about to learn one thing: Thousands of them lose their homes each year and thousands more desperately need to leave their current situation.

On Wednesday November 13, PBS NATURE will premiere Parrot Confidential, the story of these intelligent, social, still-wild birds and their plight when a home with humans doesn’t work out.

Most parrots have successful relationships with their owners.  This is the untold story of the failures.  Jamie McLeod of Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary explains, “People will say, ‘I want a bird that talks, that’s quiet, and that doesn’t bite.’  And that species has not yet been discovered.”  As a result, she says, “People typically keep parrots 2-4 years. The birds live 80 years.  Crunch those numbers out and there’s a lot of unwanted parrots out there.”

There are many reasons why a parrot-human relationship sours despite everyone’s best intentions.  The birds are highly social and demand lots of interaction and stimulation; in the wild they would never be alone.  Parrots take several years to become sexually mature and when they do they choose a mate.  In the absence of their own species they choose a member of the household, sometimes treating the rest of the family with aggression.  Changes in the human and pet family structure can trigger a parrot upset: the death of a loved one or addition of a new family member.  Some birds cope with stress by screaming, plucking and biting.

Unfortunately when a parrot needs a new home there aren’t enough shelters.  Some birds are emotionally scarred and go out for adoption over and over again.  The stories are sad but there are bright spots in the show to warm your heart:

  • There are dedicated parrot owners who love their birds and work to find what’s best for them.
  • The rescuers are real heroes.  Some have saved hundreds of parrots.
  • Some rescued parrots find a soul-mate of their own species at the shelter.
  • Because scarlet macaws are endangered in the wild, the ARA Project breeds rescued macaws in Costa Rica and releases their offspring to the forest.

I shed a few tears for the parrots, but partly for joy at the scarlet macaws flying free in Costa Rica.

Don’t miss Parrot Confidential on PBS NATURE, November 13 at 8:00pm EST.  In Pittsburgh watch it on WQED.

 

(photo of blue-and-gold macaw courtesy Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

p.s. See the comments for a discussion of parrot longevity.

Update on November 21:  Watch the entire show online at the Parrot Confidential website.

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Nov 04 2013

Feed In The Middle If You Can

Semipalmated sandpiper (photo by Steve Gosser)

For two years Guy Beauchamp carefully watched the behavior of migrating semipalmated sandpipers on the tidal flats at the Bay of Fundy.  He noticed the birds were doing something that no one had ever reported.

The sandpipers on the edge of the flock kept their heads up while feeding.  They were always on the lookout for danger, especially for merlins or peregrines that could easily snatch one of them.  Meanwhile the sandpipers in the middle were more relaxed and kept their heads down most of the time.  It turns out the birds in the middle were eating different food than the ones on the edges.

The birds on the edge of the flock pecked quickly at amphipods (similar to tiny shrimp) that were easy to see.  Their sentinel behavior made it safe for those in the middle to swish their beaks back and forth and filter the tidal slurry of diatoms (algae) and phytoplankton.  Swishing behavior wouldn’t have been possible if the flock hadn’t posted sentinels.  The birds had the advantage of living in a group.

This semipalmated sandpiper is alone, feeding with his head up, and probably has an amphipod in his beak.

I’ll bet he’d like to feed in the middle of the flock if he could.

Read more about this study here in Science Daily.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Oct 29 2013

More Males Than Females

Summer tanagers, male and female (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an amazing fact: Among birds, and especially among declining species, there are more males than females.

It’s always easier to find male birds during breeding bird surveys.  They’re clothed in conspicuous colors and put on a big show, singing and displaying to claim territory and find a mate.  Females are hard to see because they don’t sing, are often cryptically colored, and are secretive around the nest.  Unfortunately it’s not just flashiness that makes males easier to count.  The males are saying “Notice me!” because there aren’t enough females to go around.

In 2007, after reviewing hundreds of scientific papers, ornithologist Dr. Paul Donald concluded that in the vast majority of bird species males outnumber females. This means we can’t extrapolate the size of a breeding population based on the number of males we count.

Why does this happen?  Dr. Donald explained, “It’s not that females are producing more sons than daughters, because at hatching the sex ratio is generally equal. The only possible explanation is that females do not live as long as males. As generations grow older, they become increasingly dominated by males as more females die off.”

Dr. Donald also found that the skewed sex ratio is even worse among endangered birds and at its worst among the rarest species.  He hypothesized this is due to predation of females while on the nest — the double whammy of killing current and future generations at the same time.

Summer tanagers gave me personal experience with this sex ratio phenomenon.

The City of Pittsburgh is outside the summer tanagers’ range so it was quite rare that I found a pair of summer tanagers breeding in Schenley Park in 2011.   I noticed them just after their nest failed (due to a predator) because the male was impossible to ignore.  He was so angry he was shouting at everyone.

He and his lady tried for a second nest but it was too late in the season and they dispersed without success.  The next spring he was back again and easy to see.  He called and displayed, sang and sang, but she never showed up.  He was alone and that made it much easier for everyone to find him.  In 2012 he never had a mate.

This year he didn’t show up at all.   I assume both he and his lady have died.

Fortunately summer tanagers have a very wide range and their population is doing well — they are listed as “Least Concern” –  but they illustrated Dr. Donald’s finding:  Among most bird species there are more males than females.

 

(photos of summer tanagers (male on left, female on right) from Wikimedia Commons)

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Oct 22 2013

Strong Opening

 

If you’ve ever had a pet starling, you know their beaks are very powerful when opening.  That’s because European starlings have the unusual characteristic that their jaws are strongest in reverse.

It’s a counter-intuitive trait.  Our jaws are strongest when we clamp down.  William Beecher discovered that starlings’ jaw muscles are at their best when they spring open and that their eyes automatically rotate forward for binocular vision as they open their beaks.  This gives them an excellent look at potential prey in the hole they’ve just probed open and probably contributes to their success in winter.

Even as pets, starlings can’t help but probe.  It’s in their blood.  HayleyM‘s pet starling, Lolly, opens her son Aidan’s mouth as a dentist might.  Notice that beak action!

Don’t try this at home!

 

Click here to view the original video and read in the comments how this orphaned starling became a pet.  Also read the important notes in the p.s. below.

(video on YouTube, uploaded January 2011 by HayleyM)

 

p.s. Important notes:

* In North America, European starlings are one of only two wild birds (the other being the house sparrow) that can be kept as pets without a permit.  Both species are listed as invasive.

* In addition to the possibility of people catching disease from birds, HayleyM added this note to the video: “After review by my good friends at Starling Talk (www.starlingtalk.net), I have found out that this is an ill advised practice. Apparently the bacteria in the human mouth can actually make a bird sick.”

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Oct 21 2013

Eats Poison Ivy

Published by under Bird Behavior,Plants

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

How many of us get a rash from poison ivy?  (Raise your hands.)

It looks like the vast majority of us are allergic to it while some are not sure.

I know only one person who’s immune to poison ivy.  The rest of us get a rash, mild to severe, or avoid the plant so carefully that we haven’t tested the limits recently.

Birds are not only immune to poison ivy’s itchy oils — they eat its berries.

Here, a migrating yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) inspects a cluster of poison ivy berries, and then he swallows one.

Yellow-rumped warbler about to swallow a poison ivy berry (photo by Cris Hamilton)

It makes my throat itch to think about it.

 

(photos by Cris Hamilton)

p.s. Notice this warbler’s wide field of vision.  In the first photo you can see both of his eyes from the top of his head.

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Oct 02 2013

The Most Pugnacious Woodpecker

Juvenile red-headed woodpecker attacks an adult (photo by Chris Saladin)

Watch out!

Last week Chris Saladin captured these action shots of two red-headed woodpeckers in a protracted fight at Sandy Ridge Reservation.  The immature woodpecker, still clad in gray, seems to have the upper hand.  What’s the deal here?  Why are they fighting?

All woodpeckers chase to maintain their territories but red-headed woodpeckers take fighting to an extreme.  During the breeding season they’re aggressive to everyone, especially the cavity-nesters.  They persecute northern flickers, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers.  If a starling dares to take a red-headed’s nest hole the woodpecker fights — and wins.  Even the pileated woodpecker defers to this bird.

Red-headed woodpeckers are especially aggressive toward each other and are solitary in winter because they fight so much.  Each one establishes a winter territory where he gathers and stores acorns for his personal use.  All other red-heads — male, female and immature — must stay away!

Perhaps the immature showed up on migration and is hoping to claim the Sandy Ridge wetland.  The adult is having none of it!

Above, he makes the bark fly as he bounces off the dead tree.  Below, he’s quick to get out of the way as the immature zooms in!

Juvenile red-headed woodpecker chases adult (photo by Chris Saladin)

And here they’re airborne in foot-to-foot combat!

Juvenile and adult Red-headed woodpeckers fighting (photo by Chris Saladin)

Apparently they can’t stand the sight of each other.

Will they ever stop?  Finally the immature pauses so we can see him at rest.

Juvenile red-headed woodpecker (photo by Chris Saladin)

A most pugnacious species!

 

(photos by Chris Saladin)

p.s. Click here to see what an adult red-headed woodpecker looks like when he’s not in battle.

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Sep 27 2013

Birds On The Wires

European starlings on wires in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Early this month Beth Lawry asked about the noisy flocks of songbirds now congregating in the Pittsburgh area.  She wrote, “I am seeing strings of them along the signs on the Parkway –- sometimes 50+.”    And on the wires.

These are flocks of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), some of the 200 million descendants of 100 starlings introduced in Central Park, New York in 1890-91.

Flocking has helped them survive and thrive in North America.  In flocks they have:

  • Better foraging success:  Individual starlings get more to eat when they can see their flock mates eating (Fernandez-Juricic, 2005).  They watch each other as they methodically walk across my yard eating grubs.
  • Reduced predation:  In flocks they have statistical safety in numbers, more look-out birds to warn of danger, and the ability to hide within the flock when they’re under attack as shown in this video of starlings evading a peregrine falcon in Torino, Italy.
  • Thermoregulation at the roost: Starlings hang out with each other all day and then gather into huge roosts at night where they huddle to stay warm.  At very large roosts they swarm at dusk, as seen in this amazing video from Ireland.

And they are noisy.  They mimic other birds (poorly) and make wiry sounds and wolf whistles.  Click here to hear.

The starling flocks we see this month are only a hint at what we’ll see by the end of the year.  More starlings are on their way.  Those who live in the northern part of their range fly south for the winter.  Those who live south of 40oN latitude do not.

Guess where Pittsburgh is.  40oN.  We’re probably a starling hotspot because our local birds stay put and the northern crowd joins them.

By the end of December we usually have 6,000 starlings(*).

Thousands of birds on the wires.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original. Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 320 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

 

(*) average of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh-South CBC counts, 2001 through 2011.

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Sep 20 2013

What’s All the Shouting About?

On vacation in Maine I saw a lot of gulls flying, posturing, and calling.

What was all the shouting about?

This video, filmed at Appledore Island, explains it all.

I wish I’d known this two weeks ago.  ;)

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, featured in their September 2013 eNewsletter)

 

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